Court Silences Man Who Painted Protest Sign on His House

William Bowden painted “Screwed by the Town of
Cary” on his house after a road-widening project (allegedly)
directed runoff onto his property, damaging his North Carolina
home. Within hours, zoning officials paid him a visit, ordering him
to remove the sign or pay fines of up to $500 for each day of

When Bowden sued, the town argued the sign was a safety hazard
for passing motorists. Officials presented no evidence for this
assertion—no studies or experts. An estimated 15,000 drivers passed
the sign every day for months and, according to court testimony,
had precisely zero accidents (p.

Nevertheless, in January a federal appeals court
the sign had caused “traffic problems” because:

…the bright fluorescent lettering sprayed across Bowden’s home
distracted both a Cary police officer and a passing motorist, who
“beeped his horn” to get the officer’s attention.

The decision upholds the town’s sign code, which limits public
displays to a certain size—but contains exemptions for art and
holiday decorations. Bowden argued the ordinance falls afoul of the
First Amendment’s requirement that speech restrictions be content
neutral. The code improperly permits, for instance, a sign that
says “Merry Christmas” but allows officials to censor speech they
find objectionable.

The judges, who voted 3-0 for the town, were not impressed. From

“If we take your argument, though, aren’t we … essentially
saying that each house is a billboard for protest signs, and that
you could just drive down the street, just every house having
something painted that they wanted everybody to see, and nobody
could do anything?” asked Judge Max Cogburn…. “The town’s totally
powerless to stop it, based on size, color, anything else?”

Because we just can’t have people who aren’t hurting anyone
doing whatever they want.

The decision puts the 4th Circuit out of step with other courts,
which have struck down similar speech restrictions. Click here
and here
for Reason coverage of those cases.

No word yet on whether Bowden’s estate—he passed away in
2011—will appeal to the Supreme Court. However, a trial court in
the same circuit will hear a
with similar facts this week. Norfolk, VA officials are
threatening a businessman with $1,000-a-day fines for a banner
protesting plans to seize his property via eminent domain.
Enforcement is obviously content based—officials had no problem
with many signs, some of them much larger, that didn’t happen to be
criticizing the government.

H/T: Courthouse